Death, Tragedy and Community at Wartime
Death, Tragedy and Community at Wartime
Dying in War: Implications for the family, the community and the social worker Death is a phenomenon that evokes mixed reactions and views from a community. For some, it a blessed release from the trials and problems of life. To others, it may very well be the end of the world when they lose a loved one. What remains constant however is the grief, bereavement and loneliness experienced by those left behind. Even more so when death was sudden and unexpected as like what happens in times of war, disaster, and terrorist attacks. Grief goes through many stages, each stage more difficult that the last.
While most people generally manage to cope with time, some experience more difficulties and tend to develop psychological and emotional problems. During the First and Second World Wars, the knock of the postman was a thing of dread. They either brought telegrams summoning the sons and fathers of families for the draft or telegrams announcing the death or loss of loved one. An estimated 8 million military personnel in 14 European countries were killed in World War I, and 14. 4 million military personnel in 17 European countries were killed in World War II (Aiken, 2001, p. 111).
Parents who suddenly lose their children such as what happened to most wartime mothers with adult sons usually have a harder time coming to terms with the death of their child (Gilbert, 2005, p. 6). The loss and feelings of helplessness and anger can be intense. There is a common belief that something is wrong when a parent buries his/her child. Most parents who have experienced this report that they feel dissociation with life and everything just felt so unreal (p. 6). That it is not right that parents should survive their children is often the thought that haunts bereaved parents.
What role do social workers play in times of war and terror? Social problems are defined as the challenges that face and exist in communities (Hardcastle, Powers & Wenocur, 2004, p. 62). It is the social worker’s job to help the community and its members formulate and implement solutions to these problems. Social workers usually work with problems related to economic disadvantages, illness and disability, crime and delinquency, abuse and maltreatment, service provision to special parts of the population and mental illness. All these problems call for leadership attention and trained intervention (p.
62). No situation can put all these things together more than times of war. What may be the biggest challenge to a social worker though is the task of helping a family and community deal with the sudden losses of loved ones in combat. In addition to this, they should also be prepared to cope with the rehabilitation of those who have been able to come back home but exist with scars that are not only physical but also mental and emotional. The events of September 11, 2001, though technically not a part of any formal war except the one on terror, had an impact that was not dissimilar to armed conflicts.
There was confusion, anger, anxiety and above all, people who in an instant lost their loved ones. As with wartime, sudden death can only be viewed as unfair and untimely (Clements, Deranieri, Vigil & Benasutti, 2004) For example, the September 11, 2001 terror attacks left behind families and children who have lost moms and dads in that instant. Even adults and children who were indirectly affected by the attacks have grown to suffer feelings of anxiety and shattered security in their personal and familial safety (Smith & Reynolds, 2002).
Besides the inevitable feelings of grief, children especially were left behind and often had to contend with nightmares and morbid pictures of the traumatic deaths their loved ones experienced as well as the stress and difficulty of trying to picture lives without mom or dad. It is also important to remember that the effects of trauma are not limited to those who suffer it directly (Sims, Hayden, Palmer & Hutchins, 2000, p. 41) The ubiquity of television also afforded children at home not only news of the attacks but also vivid pictures and descriptions of the tragedy and all its violence.
This made it even more problematic for children and people who have lost loved ones in the Twin Towers and the plane crashes as coverage of each horrific scene gave them fodder for the imagination and subsequent nightmares. The case of a 7-year old boy named Johnny is cited in the study (2002) by Smith and Reynolds. : Following the 9/11 attacks, Johnny developed a constant fear of his parents leaving home and getting killed by “bad men. ” He also developed a phobia of elevators and would throw tantrums whenever his parents tried to make him use one.
Johnny admitted to his therapist that his fear of elevator stemmed from a story he heard of how “people in the Twin Towers were trapped and killed while riding in the elevators. ” (Smith & Reynolds, 2002) Neither Johnny nor his family were directly involved or affected in the terror attack. The mental and emotional strain suffered by survivors and those affected by this very high profile event led to the American Psychiatric Association’s setting up of counseling services “focusing on grief, acute stress and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) (Smith & Reynolds, 2002).
The difficulty that most surviving relatives meet is in the un-timeliness of death. While conventional wisdom holds that sons and fathers who go to war may not come back again, more often than not, there is a strong hope that they will be able to come home. Despite the knowledge of all the possibilities, the sudden and traumatic nature of death often creates problems among surviving relatives. They become victims in their own right. Muller and Thompson believe that the manner of death plays a vital role in determining the reaction of the survivors (Muller & Thompson, 2003).
If its bad enough for people to suddenly lose their loved ones, how much more would it be for children to live and go through an environment of war and death? In his article in the Journal of Multi-cultural Counseling and Development in 2004, Clinical psychologist and Fellow of the American Psychological Association (APA) Gargi Roysircar relates the case of 20-year old Yugoslavian emigre Stephen, who at the age of 10 witnessed the height of the civil war between Christians and Muslims in Kosovo in 1990.
In interviews with his counselor, Stephen recalls witnessing about 80% of his classmates get killed by bombs, sniper shots and gunfire as they walked to and from school. At age 14, Stephen was taken by his father to the frontlines for training in combat to fight with the Serbian army. The next two years wold take Stephen all over the Balkans and would expose him to all kinds of death, privation and war atrocities. Eventually migrating as political refugees in the United States, in 1999, Stephen demonstrated difficulty in acculturation and adjustment.
The constant displacement he experienced in war along with the mistrust bred by his past and cultural paranoia fostered by the Croatian community they lived with made it difficult for Stephen to acclimatize to peacetime setting. Roysircar describes Stephen as having “recurrent thoughts and images of his violent experience in the Balkans. He experienced nightmares, hostility and a profound sense of a lack of belonging. Stephen also often recounted the difficulties he experienced including “hiding in a basement and eating rats” especially when angry.
He also displays a deep-seated hatred for the Muslims and believes “the Middle East should be wiped off the face of the Earth” (Roysircar, 2004). While there may be models detailing stages of grief and recovery, social workers must be prepared for instances that do not adhere to such models. In Stephen’s case while he did not directly lose any of his close family members, he was exposed at an early age to violence and death. He has also experienced being the cause of another human being’s death as he and his father fought on the Serbian army.
This is no different from the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder exhibited by American soldiers returning from Vietnam or any other area where they fought in combat. A person does not have to lose anyone in order to feel grief, bereavement and suffer any disorder that may result from it as evidenced by the little boy Johnnie and Stephen. Death in wartime is not limited to just the loss of a loved one. In a community where all able bodied men are called to arms, anybody can lose husbands, brothers, fathers and sons at any day.
Families left behind are left to their own devices and imaginings of what horrors their loved ones are facing. Those who do lose family members are haunted by the manner by which their loved one died. There is also the unfortunate circumstance in war where death is an ambiguous issue. In the Vietnam War, many people were reported missing in action. The families of such people were left at an awkward and horrible position of not knowing whether they should be mourning or holding out hope for their loved one’s return (Worden, 2003, p. 40).
In some cases, some families do accept the reality that their loved one may be dead and go through the entire process of mourning and recovery only to be told later that their husbands and sons were simply prisoners of war and has since been released. While ordinarily this may sound like a fairy tale ending, there may come unbridgeable gaps and tension that can only ruin relationships and lives (p. 85). On the other hand, some families may keep clinging to the hope that their loved ones are alive and therefore refuse to give way to grief and acceptance.
Stacy Bannerman (2007) is one of the many army wives whose marriage was broken up by war. In her article that appeared in “The Progressive,” she relates how her once happy marriage with one of the military’s mortar platoon commanders started heading downhill with every death he caused and witnessed during his stint in Iraq. She decries the insensitivity and lack of support for military families from the National Guard. She further cites how there was an absolute lack of prompt attention to the mental and emotional needs of returning military men who more often than not suffered from PTSD like her husband, Lorin did.
Because of this, there have been military men who have survived their tour of duty only to succumb to mental and emotional anguish and end up committing suicide on American soil (Bannerman, 2007). It is the soldiers, their families, and the people of Iraq that pay the human costs. The tab so far: more than 3,000 dead U. S. troops, tens of thousands of wounded, over half a million Iraqi casualties, roughly 250,000 American servicemen and women struggling with PTSD, and almost 60,000 military marriages that have been broken by this war (Bannerman, 2007).
The problem here is that most of those left behind are left to cope with their own fears without the support of anybody else except family and members who are also wrapped up in their own concerns. In this case, social workers must be able to take the lead in establishing outreach and community groups so people do not have to cope and suffer in isolation. Carpenter (2002) states that the psychological well-being of the members of a community is one of the jobs of a social worker.
While it is true that the trauma brought on by exposure to violence and death may be an individual process, healing and recovery needs societal support and strong relationships (Carpenter, 2002). This may become a challenge to families and communities who are dealing with their anxiety and grief. However, Carpenter reminds social workers that one of the primary goals of social work is to help empower the oppressed. Oppression in itself can take on many definitions and forms. In this particular case, it is the trauma and grief that is debilitating and oppressing the individual and the community.
Social workers must also be prepared to look for signs of repressed grief. Some individuals choose to withhold and fail to express grief and therefore develop problems later in life often developing manias, paranoia and demonstrate abuse towards other people. At times, the feelings of grief or multiple losses of loved ones may lead to a “grief overload” that would cause an individual to delay grief (Worden, 2003, p. 91) The community as a social system can provide a network of support.
Given the right leadership, empathy and sensitivity, it can also become a “safe” place where people can come to terms with their grief and slowly move on toward recovery. In the cases of Johnnie and Stephen, it took time before they were able to face and admit their anger, anxiety and grief at the bad things that they experienced and fear. Sometimes, self-reflection and a ready ear is all that’s necessary. As clinically trained counselors and diagnosticians, social workers are tasked with the duty of helping people recognize and understand what problems they may have.
Community-wise, social workers should have enough knowledge of the community’s demographics in order to unify and create a solid network of safety and interaction that may assist troubled and grieving individuals particularly in conflict filled times such as war. Death at wartime comes in many forms. It could be the actual death of a loved one, anxiety at the possible death, loss at whether somebody is dead or not, or even those who continue to physically live but have broken spirits and permanent disabilities as a result of war wounds.
Much as death is a big thing that affects not only the family but also the community as a whole, war brings with it so much more problems and issues that will undoubtedly challenge most social workers. Undertaking social work means one must be in sync with the community. By in sync, it covers everything from issues, key people, and resources that may be mobilized in times of need. War is a time of immense crisis and tragedy that the social worker must be prepared to face head on and ably lead and facilitate the processes by which the community may be transformed into a supportive societal system that each member may be able to depend on.
This does not mean however that social workers cannot be affected or lose their sense of self in dealing with all these tragedies. Tsui and Cheung (2003) recommend a self-reflection on the part of the social worker in order to understand and come to terms with their own reactions and feelings to tragedies they both witness and hear about from their clients before attempting to deal further with the grief of others. They also stress that once social workers attend to their duties, they should do so intellectually yet with empathy and focus on assessing and addressing the needs of the community rather than one’s own (Tsui & Cheung, 2003)
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